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The history of the T

From horse-drawn cars to the Western Hemisphere’s first subway to the modern MBTA and the challenges of today—this is how the Boston region’s mass transit came to be

Flickr Vision/Getty

The T may sometimes seem like a slowly crumbling artifact, what with the mounting tales of derailments, fires, and delays. The system’s current state, however, is but a small part of a long story—one that, believe it or not, is really about innovation and being first.

Before the T: Horsepower

Boston lays claim to having the first subway system in the Western Hemisphere. Even prior to that, though, the city was on the cutting edge.

In the 1600s, given Boston was a peninsula, it took people in Chelsea two days to walk into town. So, in 1631, Thomas Williams opened the first chartered transit service in the country, which involved a ferry between what is now Boston’s North End and Charlestown.

In the late 1700s, the first stagecoach to connect Boston and Cambridge appeared. By the early 1800s, a larger stagecoach, the Omnibus, was making stops on predetermined routes, riding over Boston’s bumpy streets.

In the later half of the century, the region had horse-drawn cars on rail between Central Square in Cambridge and Bowdoin Square in Boston—which eventually led to more than 20 companies forming by 1887 to service the city. Fares were steep and competition fierce. So the state legislature eventually consolidated the companies into the private West End Street Railway.

Late 19th century: Going electric

With this consolidation, Boston now had one of the largest street railway operations in the U.S with more than 8,000 horses, but is was unreliable. Horses had to be fed, moved slowly, were overworked, and their feces littered city streets—electric streetcars would be the fix.

“Electric powered streetcars, by contrast, were pollution-free,” according to the Allston-Brighton Historical Society. They were also faster: 10 to 15 miles per hour vs. 5 to 6 for horse-pulled fare. And they could carry more passengers per trip, making it possible to offer less expensive fares, according to the society.

Beyond these, electric had another key economic advantage: Once firms met the initial high-installation costs, there were no heavy longterm expenses.

In 1887, Brookline developer Henry M. Whitney, the man who can be credited with the railway consolidation, traveled to Richmond, Virgina, where that city was trying out electric-powered streetcars with the Union Passenger Railway Company.

After his research, Whitney then created an electric train route from Allston’s Braintree Street to Back Bay’s Park Square. It began service on January 1, 1889, and ran from the Allston Railroad Depot, up Harvard Avenue, left at Coolidge Corner to Park Square—and is now part of the Green Line’s C branch.

It didn’t stop there—electric streetcar lines began to pop up all over the city via private investors and ventures. With this expansion came complaints, not unlike those today.

1897: The hemisphere’s first subway emerges

A black-and-white photo of trolleys beside a major urban park.
Trolleys next to Boston Common circa 1897.
Getty Images

This may not come as a surprise to modern-day T riders. The electric streetcars were so congested, especially near Tremont Street, that riders often said it would be faster to climb onto the roofs of stalled trains and walk to where they were going.

It was time for a change, and talks of a subway emerged. According to the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, the Rapid Transit Commission, which the governor and Boston’s mayor appointed in 1891, recommended four elevated railway lines and a tunnel for streetcars under Tremont Street, along with the creation of the Boston Elevated Railway Company. That absorbed the West End Railway Company.

The Tremont Street subway started running Wednesday, September 1, 1897.

“Out of the sunlight of the morning and into the white light of the subway rolled the first passenger carrying car at 6.01,” the Boston Daily Globe reported. “The car was from Allston, and it approached the immense yawn in the earth by the way of Pearl st, Cambridgeport, and the Harvard bridge.”

Many of the riders, especially the women were thrilled, according to the newspaper:

”O, dear, isn’t it delightful!”

”O, come, and let us ride around again.”

As the Boston region entered into the 20th century, more subways emerged, alongside elevated railway lines.

Early 20th century: Boston rises above

Although an “El” would be talked about for a while, it would take the Boston Elevated Railway Company years to implement it.

After a groundbreaking ceremony on January 20, 1899, the company built 7 miles of olive green elevated track, 10 elevated stations, and two large multilevel terminals. The company also acquired 150 cars.

At 5 a.m. on Monday, June 10, 1901, the main elevated line opened up between Roxbury’s Dudley Square and Charlestown’s Sullivan Square. The departure gongs sounded at 5:30 as the first packed trains rolled out, setting off 86 years of El service in Boston.

By 1909, the El ran from Everett to Boston’s Forest Hills, with a section that ran above Washington Street. The El would be used in conjunction with the subway and a large network of trolley lines.

An elevated run of subway track in front of a major train station, and around it is is a busy streetscape.
The El in front of South Station in 1914.
Bettmann Archive

By 1930, according to the City of Boston, almost 75 percent of the people traveling in and out of downtown Boston either used the public transit system or walked. By comparison, in 2018, 46 percent of commuters either drove or carpooled into and around the ciyt, and 34 percent took public transit.

The early public transit system built around the El was expansive, connecting more neighborhoods and providing more routes than there are today.

“By 1943 325,000 people a day squeezed aboard the Main Line El trains,” the history site Mass Moments said. “By then, the Boston Elevated Railway provided service on 52 different streetcar lines.”

1940s: Change brewing

The quasi-governmental Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) took over the El in 1947, absorbing the entire Boston Elevated Railway system.

The system was considered “a political subdivision of the Commonwealth,” and served the 14 cities and towns that were considered to be metro Boston: Arlington, Belmont, Boston, Brookline, Cambridge, Chelsea, Everett, Malden, Medford, Milton, Newton, Revere, Somerville, and Watertown.

But the region’s mass transit was becoming too crowded, and Bostonians were sick of looking at the elevated tracks, much preferring the portions of the trains underground.

1960s: Goodbye, El—Hello, MBTA

In 1957, the MTA expanded the Newton Highlands Branch of the Boston and Albany Railroad, with service beginning in 1959. This is today’s Green Line D Branch, with service between Boston and Newton.

Amidst this expansion, though, came demolition. By the mid-1960s, the Orange Line El began to get torn down, eventually giving way to a subway line. The final El track was demolished in 2004.

As the number of car commuters grew, alongside new heavy traffic in the 1960s, the MTA began to suffer financially as traffic worsened and more people were opting for trains. The MTA’s debt grew as it tried to meet demand.

Following a massive study, state lawmakers decided to combine all existing railroads in and around the region into one public transit system: The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) became a state agency in 1964.

Almost immediately after its inception, the MBTA applied for federal funding to modernize 10 mass transit stations: Copley, Maverick, Prudential, Orient Heights, Government Center/Blue and Green Lines, Fields Corner, Columbia, Kenmore, Haymarket, and Arlington.

There have been so many other changes to the T since then.

1970s until now: A tumultuous time

Partially due to gas prices, T ridership rose during the 1970s, further exposing the aging system’s problems. On December 6, 1980, the T even shut down for a day due to a lack of funds.

“The last train for Boston pulled out of Harvard/Brattle Station at 11:32 p.m.; attendants then stood in the doorways and told passengers that service had shutdown,” the Harvard Crimson reported.

“‘No more trains,’ one T worker told incoming passengers.

“‘For how long?’ one asked as she turned around.

“‘Maybe forever,’ he answered with a smile.”

A crowded subway train as seen through one of its windows.
A Green Line train pulling out of Government Center in November 1980.
Boston Globe via Getty Images

To prevent this from happening again, the MBTA expanded its board from five to seven members, including the state transportation secretary. This was meant to boost oversight of the agency to see any calamities coming sooner rather than later.

By 2009, the MBTA was put under the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) umbrella. But, in the past 10 years, the stories of the troubled MBTA and its T have continued to unfold, much of which can be brought back to its age, its debt, its backlog of repairs, and the population growth of the region it services.

The system’s most recent major trouble stemmed from a Red Line derailment in June 2019, which a broken axle caused.


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